HS2: A Grave Affair?

The Church of England appears to have come out against HS2 in a row over the disturbance of cemeteries that would be affected by the route of the high speed line.

This story was picked up quickly by the media. The Guardian, the Daily Telegraph, The Daily Mail, The Independent, The Daily Mirror and The Times all covered it, as did various other national news outlets.

In the regional press the tale got good traction too –the Birmingham Mail spoke of “fears over plans to dig up cemetery”, the Camden New Journal breathlessly declared: “Historic Graves to be ripped up if HS2 high speed rail link goes ahead” and Heart FM out-punned everybody with its headline “Church Prays To Halt HS2 Over Grave Fears

The story originated in a press release issued on June 2 by the CofE which was in turn based on a formal petition handed to the Government almost two weeks earlier by the Archbishops’ Council.

HS2 Ltd quickly tried to play down the objection, pointing out that the CofE had specifically stated it was not against the project per se, but conceded there was concern with the desecration of consecrated land.

(The company also took umbrage with the Telegraph story’s headline, which it described as “somewhat sensationalist”, and explained the complex procedures of petitioning against a Hybrid bill. But, to be fair, the Telegraph did take a more sombre approach in this think piece by Philip Johnston).

The Department of Transport also weighed in on the CofE’s petition, pointing out that although the affected burial grounds in Euston, Stoke Mandeville and Birmingham had not been used for more than 100 years, HS2 Ltd would treat human remains with dignity, respect and care.


One of the remaining monuments in St James’s Gardens,

Pic CC Stephen McKay


So what inspired the CofE to launch such a strongly worded petition to the Government?

In the construction of major transport projects, graveyards have often been subject to destruction, with their human contents removed and placed elsewhere.

As Philip Johnston Points out, poet and author Thomas Hardy (1840 – 1928) personally oversaw one such removal when an apprentice architect near King’s Cross.

He later seemed to regret his actions somewhat, speaking up for those exhumed in a poem called The Levelled Graveyard.


Thomas Hardy

What’s more, the CofE doesn’t seem to have made much noise about other graveyards threatened by recent transport projects.

It has seemingly had little of consequence to say about Cherry Lane Cemetery, which faces the prospect of being dug up for a dual carriageway in some of Heathrow Airport’s expansion proposals.

And it apparently said nothing much about the thousands of graves being unearthed by Crossrail, including those found near the old Bedlam Hospital asylum and others in a previously undiscovered plague pit.


Bedlam Mental Hospital interior. Bodies from the first hospital have been found by workers on London’s Crossrail Project. Pic William Hogarth, Scene in Bedlam Asylum, 1732-33

In fact these were unceremoniously whisked away to the Museum of London Archaeology for scientists to test, hoping to find the DNA of the bacteria which caused the bubonic plague.

And the CofE even seems quite happy to dig up bodies from its own graveyards when so inclined. In this getSurrey article, Graves to be relocated for new church, one church leader says casually, “It’s quite usual”, and adds: “It’s a disused burial ground”.

A bit like St James’s Gardens in Euston then, one of those threatened by HS2 and one of the subjects of the CofE’s petition.

The gardens are now a public park and children’s play area –complete with football and basketball facilities – and has not hosted a funeral since the mid 19th century.

Park Street graveyard in Birmingham closed for burials in 1857 and, ironically, most of it was bought in Victorian times by the London and North Western Railway to run a rail line through, with 1,151 graves dug up to accommodate the route.

Meanwhile the Old Stoke Mandeville Church of St Mary’s last saw a burial in its grounds in 1908, and is now – even according to those trying to save it – a “heap of rubble” in a deserted village.

Perhaps the CofE’s true objection to the disturbance of cemeteries dates back to HS1, when the railways’ builders forced furious archaeologists off the sites of one of its former graveyards to complete the Channel Tunnel Rail Link.

HS1 cited use of a Hybrid Bill to over-rule the CofE and English Heritage’s objections to what they saw as the over-hasty demolition of the St Pancras cemetery.

The suggestion from within the Church lies here, albeit buried at the bottom of some Daily Mail copy republished by the Anglican Communion News Service website. Strangely, the paragraph making the connection has now vanished from mail online.

The London Evening Standard carried the story in 2002, saying that the archaeologists’ plan had been to identify the dead and contact their relatives explaining about the removal of the bodies. They also wanted to research the history of burial practices.

The story is no longer on the Standard website but is reproduced here, where it is claimed that HS1 refused to allow the bodies to be individually disinterred and therefore prevented proper reburial.

If this is the cause of the falling out between HS2 and the Chruch it’s a shame – British railways in general have a long history of positively helping with the disposal of the dead.
For example, the eerily-named London Necropolis Train was created to ferry corpses out of from the rapidly-expanding capital – which was fast running out of graveyard spaces – to a huge purpose-built graveyard in rural Surrey.


A one way Victorian “coffin ticket” for the London Necropolis train service

pic: public domain

An 1852 Hybrid Bill passed by Parliament allowed for the formation of the “London Necropolis & National Mausoleum Company” which took bodies in coffins from a private station near Waterloo to a specially created “metropolitan” cemetery in the small village of Brookwood, near Woking.

The journey took around 45 minutes and there was even a separate station at the 400 acre-site for deceased CofE members, with those of other denominations being unloaded elsewhere.

This morbid rail service was such a success that the Brookwood Cemetery is still the biggest Western Europe, even talking into account military cemeteries.

Since 1854, more than 235,000 bodies have been interred there and it is still open for burials, although after the London station was bombed in 1941 the special railway service was abandoned.


The only remaining part of the London Necropolis London Station, at 121 Westminster Bridge Road, London



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s